Data can be both substance and style
Stats have a dubious reputation.
The cliché about lies, damned lies and statistics is unkillable –because it tells a partial truth. Numbers, misrepresented, can prove almost anything.
But anything done badly can produce bad results. Used well, data is of immense benefit and power. It is illuminating. It also plays an increasing part in the world around us.
Public services in Northern Ireland are committed to an outcomes-based approach, meaning the use of data – including tracking data over time – is baked in to policymaking.
Information is a growing concern for the third sector. The public sector is, of course, a major funder of community and voluntary organisations so their lead must be followed, to some degree. At the same time, other funders are moving in a similar direction.
That means charities will, more and more, have to weave data into the pitches they make for support. However, assuming that is the use limit for data is reductive. It could even be self-sabotage.
People love to tell stories. Stories are the language by which we comprehend the world around us. Statistics can supplement, clarify and enhance narratives. They can even tell stories on their own.
They are a way of gaining understanding, of isolating misunderstandings and, far from being dry, statistics can deliver an emotional punch (see this great, and astounding, example from think tank Pivotal about health waiting lists in NI).
Data can help us understand problems better. It can help us fix problems better. Data can improve society.
Stats & Stories
Dr Donna Kernaghan has worked in the third sector for over a decade, primarily in children’s services, with organisations including the National Children’s Bureau and Barnardo’s NI.
Late last year she founded Stats & Stories, a consultancy service that wants to improve NI’s third sector by providing “research and evaluation services to support organisations place evidence at the centre of decision making and practice.”
“Working in the sector for ten or so years, it was obvious that the practitioners are amazing. They are able to go in and change people’s lives, meet people where they are at, run projects and generally improve society.
“However, sometimes evaluation is an afterthought, something left to the end of the week that never gets any attention unless people need it for funding.”
Dr Kernaghan says using data well is about improving services – which is the reason it is becoming more important to funders: identifying needs and measuring the effects of services on addressing those needs.
Stats & Stories is keen to work with organisations to help them make feasible improvements. To do that, it will be very flexible – able to add value at the beginning, in the middle or closer to the end of initiatives, and over a broad range of timescales, for both larger and smaller organisations.
Stats can shine a light on issues that may otherwise have remained hidden. They can confirm needs that people knew existed. Both are important. And, when it comes to tackling social need, data can keep track of the scale of that need and the scale of any progress.
Dr Kernaghan says many people in the sector are brilliant at describing specific examples of the work they do and the transformative impact it has.
However, this does not always tell the whole story.
“Many practitioners are able to tell you a great story about Little Johnny, whose life has moved from a to b, about how this happened and why it is so important to that one person. However, that might not be enough evidence to inform other people’s actions. Policymakers, funders, and so on.
“When I started out, I was so confused about why I kept hearing stories about certain individual people’s lives being changed. I would wonder ‘What about the other 50 people you have worked with this year?’ I think using narratives about individual people alongside proper data can be extremely powerful.”
Dr Kernaghan says people in the third sector are time poor and that sometimes collecting data is seen as something that gets in the way. “It’s record keeping. It’s boring. It’s not frontline, and it gets left to the end of the week when it tends to stay on the to-do list.
“However, I think looking forward everyone can see that times are going to be different for the sector in terms of funding. Why would you not want to be able to show your impact in the best way possible?
“For government and other funders this is the way they want to understand your work, your practice, and how it relates to the high-level outcomes that are driving all those policy decisions. So we should play into that to get funding or influence the changes you want.”
Fundamentally, however, data can be used to make third-sector organisations better at their core mission. It can clarify purpose – and, ultimately, improve the lives of those who rely on services.
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